John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it.
Preston Sturges: Sullivan’s Travels
I recently saw two films written and directed by people who took some interesting and unique looks at sex and relationships in the new millennium. But though one welcomes the filmmakers’ attempts at exploring such “taboo” topics (as much as anything can really be considered “taboo” anymore), and though both at times offered bold and challenging takes on their subject matter, neither one really came together in a totally satisfying way. In fact, I suppose one could say that each ended on something of a limp note, which I suppose is appropriate for stories about pornography and prostitution.
The first, Don Jon, stars (in the title role), is written by, and is directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which seems to fit perfectly with a movie about someone who masturbates a lot. It’s obviously a labor of love (and self love) on Gordon-Levitt’s part and it’s not without its pleasures, not all of which are onanistic.
It begins by making some incredibly forceful and insightful observations about sex. It certainly offers one of the best defenses of indulging in the viewing of adult filmmaking that I’ve ever heard. It even goes so far as to suggest that Nicholas Myer type movies are no more than porn for women (and again, makes a very, even scarily so, convincing argument for it—neither are remotely realistic looks at sex and relationships, and both are pure fantasy).
It then really goes for the jugular in what it has to say about male/female relationship (perhaps the most honest, if not depressing, view I’ve heard in some time, whether you agree with it or not). Men only want women for sex (even more alarming, in this metrosexual world, men don’t even need women to cook and clean for them—a revelation that causes Don’s girlfriend, played by a dynamic and dynamically sexy Scarlett Johansson, to freak out when she finds out that Don does his own housework; she knows a threat when she hears it). Meanwhile, women, knowing this, use sex to manipulate men into doing whatever they want. And the winner is whoever is most skilled at manipulating the opposite sex (sort of a bastardization of Shaw’s theory of the life force).
There are actually very exciting ideas, worthy of debate. Worthy of being asked. And Gordon-Levitt definitely asks them, and with a certain viciousness beneath the humor. But his ultimate answer is…well, rather conventional, even unoriginal, as it all kinda goes soft as the blood flows out of the organ in the second half.
This is because of Julianne Moore, playing Esther, a character who is, well, not really a real person, but more a construct needed to resolve all the issues brought up in the first half. Now, it’s easy to overlook the fact that she is no more than a construct because Moore is so good in the role, acting in a totally different, down to earth style from everyone else (if truth be told, Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Tony Danza-as the steroid looking dad-and the others are fun, but they do tend to push things dangerously close to becoming caricatures). Moore plays a woman who has lost both her husband and child. Fair enough. But what makes her a construct is that she also plays someone who has more insight into sex and relationships than a Ph.D. in psychology would have, speaking in calm, motherly homilies while getting Don to change his hair style (she’s just as manipulative as Johansson’s character, but is less confrontational about it).
And at this point, Gordon-Levitt as a writer starts to cheat. When Esther asks Don why he likes porn, he doesn’t give her all the cogent arguments he gave at the beginning of the film. He gives her only one. And with that, a movie that started out giving us a very convincing case as to why the missionary position is the most unfulfilling one for men, becomes a movie that embraces that position as the only one than can deliver true sexual ecstasy (there’s one scene that suggests that Don is starting to question his church’s teachings; maybe so, but he still ends up embracing its positions on, uh, well, positions?).
But I have to applaud Gordon-Levitt. He went for the trifecta in making his film and even if he didn’t get a home run, he still ended up with a movie that is handsomely produced with some fine performances and some very funny scenes, as well as a film that makes some astute observations about sex.
Even if it does peter out in the end.
Concussion, written and directed by Stacie Passon, has a different set of issues. The story is about Abby, a typical stay at home mom type with the added twist that her significant other is also a woman. Abby gets hit in the head with a ball and is rushed to the E.R. As a result, she begins questioning the rather Stepford like existence she’s been leading and finds herself drifting into the life of a prostitute.
Well, actually, that’s part of the rub. You see, the only way I would have known most of this is because I was told this before the movie began.
Concussion is one of those movies that begins in the middle of act one. We know nothing about Abby or what she’s like before the accident, so we have no context to judge what happens to her afterward (we don’t even see the accident itself). So is she a nice, lovable Donna Reed type who turns into the Wicked Witch of the West, or was she always the Wicked Witch (as she seems from the first scene) and after being beaned, she slowly begins to mellow and become nicer and more open to life as she drifts into the world’s oldest profession? I don’t know. I mean, even after half the movie had gone by and Passon seems to imply it’s what is behind Curtain No. 2, I still wasn’t sure.
And none of the other characters are any help, damn them. No one remarks that Abby is acting different in any way, which suggests, ipso facto, that there is no change. And if there isn’t, then what was the point of the accident, as well as the title?
The whole thing seems highly influenced by Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, also about a middle-class housewife (played by the great Catherine Deneuve) who is unfulfilled and becomes a lady of the afternoon. Concussion doesn’t reach the level of Bunuel’s film (what movie could). But Passon is also not that strong with pacing and the movie is a bit slow in parts. One of the ironies is that Bunuel never really shows the sex (it’s all suggested and kept off screen), while Passon fills the screen with a series of encounters that are dwelt on in a protracted manner. But Bunuel’s film seems so wicked and erotic, while Passon’s seems listless and emotionally uninvolving.
Concussion also goes soft in the same way Don Jon does. Abby seems to find a new freedom, a new way of looking at life. She becomes her own person and finds new ways of relating to people, all of which start to look good on her (Robin Wiegert as Abby is often very appealing in the way she struggles to come to terms with how she is changing). But when the secrets seep out, suburban morality once again rears its head and Abby opts for the comfort of Cheever/Updyke normality (at least I think that’s how Concussion ends—there’s a quick flash of Abby with some of the other characters that may indicate a different ending, but it went by so fast, I couldn’t tell if it was a flashback or a flashforward).
In Concussion this return to normality is symbolized by a wrap around porch. In Don Jon, it’s symbolized by the missionary position. But a rose by any other name, I guess.